The Future Soon

By Mike Dorf

The new (and terrific) film, Robot and Frank, holds some potentially interesting, if muddled, messages, about the promise and perils of technology.  Spoiler Alert: After the trailer, I'll give a very abbreviated plot summary, but I won't give away anything beyond what the trailer gives away.

[Readers of the email without embedded video, you can see the trailer by clicking here.]

Okay, here's the basic setup: Older man, Frank (played by Frank Langella), is beginning to suffer memory loss and has a hard time caring for himself while living alone.  His grown son gets him a robot to help.  The film is set in the near-future, when such technology is feasible but not yet so common that people are accustomed to having robot servants.  Frank at first resists the robot but then discovers that the robot has no moral qualms about helping Frank--an ex-con burglar--in new heists.  What amounts to a buddy movie ensues.

An important sub-plot involves the local library, which appears to be patronized by just about nobody, except for Frank, and it also appears that Frank's main reason for going to the library is to visit with the librarian Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon.  But the library is being liquidated by wealthy yuppies, led by a character called Jake (played by Jeremy Strong), who has a nefarious air about him (somewhat like Paul Reiser's character in Aliens), even though it's never quite clear why.  In addition to a conflict with Frank and the robot, Jake's plan for the library is to scan then destroy most of the books and convert the library itself into a social space.  His rationale, which is portrayed as somehow debased, is that people can get whatever they want to read instantly without having to visit a library, so the space should be used for some purpose other than the storage of books.

The filmmakers pretty clearly mean the audience to disdain Jake's plan for the library, but other than the fact that librarian Jennifer, a sympathetic character, doesn't like the plan, they never really explain what's wrong with it.  Indeed, the antiquarian sentiments expressed by Jennifer and Frank with respect to the library appear to be incongruous within the film's larger story.  The robot repeatedly tells Frank that it lacks sentience but Frank doesn't believe it.  When Frank says the robot is his friend, he's trying to prevent his daughter (played by Liv Tyler) from realizing that he needs the robot to commit crimes, but Frank is also telling the truth: the robot is his friend.  The film's most poignant scenes involve Frank deciding whether to blank the robot's memory--and thus prevent that memory from being used as evidence against Frank--at the risk of "killing" his friend.  Aware of his own fading memory, Frank strongly identifies with the robot.

Far from being a cautionary tale along the lines of Terminator or The Matrix--or, in jokey fashion, the song for which I have named this post--Robot and Frank carries a relatively hopeful message about the robotic future.  Indeed, the closing credits feature clips of unthreatening robots that already exist performing helpful tasks.  So why the (implied) demonization of kindles, nooks, iPads and other e-readers, and the concomitant glorification of books?  I raise the question not so much to try to get inside the heads of the people behind Robot and Frank but because I have encountered the same attitude among colleagues in talking about the future of libraries.

A couple of years ago, I served on the search committee for Cornell's chief law librarian.  As one would expect, everybody we interviewed expressed ambivalence.  On the one hand, they all recognized that digitization meant they would need to re-imagine libraries for a future that is already upon us, in which the vast majority of what people need to read can be obtained much more cheaply and much more quickly via download than via printed books or journals.  On the other hand, they all also expressed the view that libraries would continue to play some function as curator--to preserve rare books and to serve older users still not fully comfortable with the transition to e-readers.

Now, it's easy to dismiss the second set of attitudes as mere nest-feathering.  Of course librarians want to preserve some function for printed books in libraries.  Otherwise, they're out of a job.  But what I discovered during our librarian search--and have repeatedly encountered since--is that there is substantial sentimental attachment to books.  Undoubtedly, there's a large generational divide.  Even my younger colleagues are still too old to have grown up reading on screens, and so they (and I) have a reflexive attachment to books on paper.  Indeed, even my pre-adolescent kids--who have and use Nooks--still mostly prefer to read on paper.  So some of the attachment to paper is probably just a reflection of the fact that for all of their advantages, e-readers still haven't fully overtaken paper.  But that day is coming soon.

When it does finally get here, will there be anything other than sentimentality and luddism to keep us attached to old-style books?  The closest I can come to providing a reason to say yes is to note that reading an old-style book is a commitment to the written word in a way that reading on an iPad or other high-end e-readers is not.  Such devices are not merely readers.  They are also video and gaming platforms, as much an alternative to a tv as an alternative to a book.

The more sophisticated robots become, the more they can simulate human qualities that satisfy basic needs for connection (notwithstanding the supposed uncanny valley).  The more sophisticated e-readers become, the less they feel like reading a book and the more of a threat they pose to reading--or at least so one might worry.  I don't know whether the makers of Robot and Frank were driving at this point, but it strikes me as a plausible one, in any event.